The Pandemic Response and the Myth of the Caring Society
There is a glaring inconsistency between our self-perception as ‘caring’ and the reality of our actions
Across the world, politicians, scientists and commentators have portrayed lockdowns as an inevitable response to the spread of Covid-19. Over the last 20 months, we have been constantly reminded that governments have been simply “following the science” when they decide to implement unprecedented control measures. And while the pandemic response has certainly raised questions about the ways we use science to formulate policy, it has also exposed a myth at the heart of Western civilisation—the myth of a caring society.
The myth goes something like this: because equality is one of our foundational values, we see all human lives as equally important. We will therefore do whatever it takes to preserve the life of each and every individual, at all costs. Preventable death is unacceptable in our society.
Before the current pandemic, we could see this myth play out, for example, in cases of Westerners being unjustly imprisoned in overseas countries, when politicians and media paid much attention to their fate. It was the same politicians and the same media that often turned a blind eye to human rights abuses at home, and this inconsistency could help us see that rather than a genuine commitment to the preservation of life, the ‘caring society’ was a myth used in service of other agendas, such as showing moral superiority over a foreign power.
During the pandemic, we have seen countless such inconsistencies that have brought the myth into sharp relief more than perhaps ever before.
A narrow focus on Covid-19 within healthcare systems, for example, has led to many preventable deaths from other causes; in the UK alone, tens of thousands of people might die prematurely because of the lack of cancer diagnostics which was shut down during the country’s multiple lockdowns. If we are a ‘caring society’, why did we choose to prioritise one threat to life over all others?
The inconsistencies go even deeper. If unprecedented lockdowns were justified as a response to the pandemic, why are Western societies reluctant to take much more modest, less intrusive and less costly measures against other sources of preventable death? Why are our health systems chronically underfunded, and epidemics of ‘diseases of civilisation’ from obesity to domestic violence go unaddressed?
The hypocrisy of the ‘caring society’ narrative has also been reflected in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines around the world. Even though volunteers in the Global South were crucial in the clinical trials of many of the vaccines, pharmaceutical companies and governments in the Global North decided to prioritise the supply of vaccines to their young, healthy citizens at low risk of severe disease over making the vaccines available to vulnerable groups in the South. It is difficult to envision a more explicit proof that our society indeed does not attach equal value to all lives, and yet, the myth of the ‘caring society’ remains central to how we view the Western civilisation.
Rather than a ‘caring’ society, we are a society structured around countless us-them divisions. We attach very different value to different lives depending on the who, where, and why of death, and we often turn a blind eye to preventable tragedies. Indeed, in some instances we trade preventable death for ‘progress’—for example in our willingness to normalise traffic casualties as an acceptable price for greater mobility or industrial accidents as justified by economic growth.
This does not mean that striving to become a caring society is not a worthy goal. But the pandemic response of the last 20 months has not moved us closer to this ideal; rather, it has further entrenched a kind of collective cognitive dissonance in which we simultaneously perceive our society as ‘caring’ and act in ways that are deeply uncaring. The path towards a genuine caring society lies not in a continued denial but in recognising the narrative we hold so dear for what it is—a myth.
Peter Sutoris, Ph D is an environmental anthropologist based at University College London, and the author of Visions of Development (Oxford University Press) and the forthcoming Educating for the Anthropocene (The MIT Press). He tweets @PSutoris and more about his research can be found at www.petersutoris.com
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